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Melbourne Cup: History of the race that stops a nation

No horse race captivates its country’s attention more than the Melbourne Cup, which has been dubbed the race that stops a nation.

Possibly only the Aintree Grand National can match the mainstream coverage of a contest which similarly transcends sport and attracts once-a-year punters.

We’ve taken a look at the Melbourne Cup history and some of the famous names who have helped build up this iconic event:

What is the Melbourne Cup?

The Melbourne Cup is the most famous horse race in Australia and one of its oldest, having first been held in 1861.

It is held on the first Tuesday of November every year and covers a total distance of 3,200 metres, making it longer than many other top Flat races around the world.

There are usually 24 runners, with every race since 1985 having between 21 and 24. However, the field has varied widely over the years, from as low as seven to as many as 39.

The race is held at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, which has a capacity of 120,000 people. The course is pear-shaped, with a six-furlong straight called ‘the Straight Six’.

What does the winner of the Melbourne Cup receive?

When the race was first held in 1861, the winner was given a gold watch, but by 1865 a trophy had been created to give to the triumphant connections – a practice that has continued ever since.

In 1985, the Melbourne Cup became the first race in the country with a total prize fund of 1 million Australian dollars. Since then, the total prize money has increased significantly and currently stands at $8million.

Melbourne Cup milestones

The very first winner of the Melbourne Cup – Archer – would go on to win it again the following year with the same jockey; John Cutts.

That same pairing could have made it three in a row in 1863 but an administrative technicality meant they were unable to compete and just seven horses ran after many withdrew in solidarity.

The early years of the race also saw its youngest-ever winning jockey when Peter St Albans crossed the line first aged just 12 years, 11 months and 23 days in 1876.

Fast-forward to 1948 and another milestone was reached as a photo-finish was used to determine the winner of the Melbourne Cup for the first time. However, this ended in controversy when the camera was later revealed to have been incorrectly aligned.

A new record time was set in 1989 and then bettered again the following year, with Kingston Rule’s finish of three minutes 16.3 seconds remaining the fastest of any Melbourne Cup winner.

There have been some memorable Melbourne Cup history firsts in recent races too, with Michelle Payne becoming the maiden female jockey to win it in 2015.

The fact that she was riding 100/1 outsider Prince of Penzance – only the fourth time that a horse with such long odds had triumphed – rendered her achievement all the more impressive.

Who has won the most Melbourne Cups?

There have been five horses who have won the race more than once, with Makybe Diva the only one to have done so three times. Her hat-trick came in back-to-back years from 2003 to 2005.

Glen Boss was the jockey for all three of those wins, making him the only rider in history to have won the Melbourne Cup three years in a row. However, there are two jockeys who have won the race four times: Bobbie Lewis almost a century ago and Harry White in the 1970s.

Last year saw Lloyd Williams cement his record as the race’s most successful owner with a seventh Melbourne Cup win; three more than anyone else has managed.

In the world of training, there is one name that stands out above all others. The late Bart Cummings was responsible for 12 Melbourne Cup winners over a 43-year period from 1965 to 2008, with no other trainer having saddled more than five.

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